Sunday, August 16, 2015

A "Words of Mouth" Expat Community

Alongside the smooth tarmacked main roads leading southwest of Iringa, there are countless numbers of dirt roads leading into what seem like middle of nowhere.  From faraway they are seem quite similar: a few thatched, dirt-walled houses surrounded by small-holding farms and patches of temperate forests covering the more remote parts of the region's characteristic hilly terrain.  Each generally had either no sign or small signs that are entirely unnoticeable to vehicles passing through at high speeds on the main road.  The only exception to these were shops that occasionally placed themselves at these makeshift traffic turnoffs.

Yet the shops themselves are often just as enigmatic as the dirt roads that stretch behind them.  The naming of the shops are generic in all their happiness-inspiring or religiously-connoted glory.  None particularly stand out in this regard.  In this mix of roads and shops on the rural outskirts of a major provincial town, to seek out presence of foreigners is more or less visually impossible.  Prior knowledge, in the form of exact directions (e.g. how many dirt roads to pass by before hitting the right dirt road to turn?), seems to be absolutely essential in finding the destination.

Given that this is a not-so-well-known and not-so-well-visited locale in the middle of the African continent, those exact directions are not something that one can easily find through a third-party source, whether it be on the Internet or through even the most comprehensive guidebooks.  After all, yes, these places, in the forms of specialty shops, direct-selling farms, and simple lodges providing specialized services to the expat crowd, would be needed for long-term residents, short-term residents simply does not have the need to know.  As such, no one seems to be so keen on expending the efforts to publicize such information.

So how would a newbie resident ever get to know about such locales, one might ask.  The simple answer is to ask others.  Information on expat life is all stored in the collective heads of the veteran expats, who, over the course of years, both created social and economic institutions for the expat community as well as made the small community fully aware of their existence.  The only downside is that those who are not in the circle and do not know people who know about such places will never have the opportunity to dig out such isolated gems by their own efforts.

While it is perfectly understandable that the minuscule demand for the information means that the costs associated with putting all such information in collected, standardized, and publishable form cannot be justified from an economic standpoint, the idea of leaving the information in a more visible, public form does help.  A good example is a certain expat-oriented grocery store off the main road.  A clear white sign and a even clearer foreign-sounding name of the shop does give away the "special" nature of the shop, but there are no specifications on what is for sale and even where exactly it is off the main road.

But aside from the fact that the expat community may be small enough for "words of mouth" to work in sufficiently comprehensive level, it is also interesting to speculate why else the stories of great places for expats to go remain exclusively verbal but not written.  The author tends to think that it has something to do with the perceived need to maintain their exclusivity within the foreigner community.  This is particularly true for retain outlets where products being sold are not unreachable for at least some members of the local population that have higher than normal incomes for even the educated in this local town.

It is perhaps a desire to mark the permanent difference between the local and the expat populations that drive a complete lack of what one can consider to be highly logical (in a business sense) decision to market toward well-off locals.  "The locals can become Westernized, but they should do so at their own pace and with their own resources," the logic might go.  It anchors the belief that the expats, most of whom serve as researchers, consultants, and development professionals, have the need to create a parallel society that does not interfere with the already existent local one.

The dichotomy may be based on both a sinister colonialist mentality or one of an altruistic "hands-off" nature.  The former needs no elaboration.  A solid belief that the higher educational and socioeconomic levels of the expats mean that the locals need to obey at the workplace.  This permeates into daily life as the expats, without putting the attitude into words, hold underlying racist attitude that the locals either does not deserve the share the lifestyle resources of the expats, or, even more worrisome, simply does not possess the necessary cosmopolitanism and sophistication to comprehend the expat lifestyle.

In contrast to the "futility of the ill-educated locals" argument, the latter would place the expats solidly in the category of the continent's invaders, who seeks to change traditional lifestyles.  To prevent the perceived accusation of grassroots neocolonialism, expats of this ideology would want themselves as hidden from the locals as possible.  Hence, the locals, as the masters of the land, should be supported with Western ideas and technologies where helpful but should be kept in the dark of expat lifestyle needs, which does not particularly advance local economy in any supportive way.

Ultimately, whether one holds a subliminally racist or strictly anti-colonial attitude, the reality is the same: expats have their own shops, hotels, barbers, and restaurants that few locals know about.  This does not mean expats do not use local counterparts to these expat institutions, nor does it means locals are unaware of the expat shops' existence.  But to understand to what degree locals may or may not condone and tolerate the presence of expats living in different ways as them would be an interesting topic to observe further in the subsequent weeks and months.  

No comments:

Post a Comment